The Liberal Arts Path to a Career in the Sciences

By Allison Barrett

A broad and inclusive liberal arts education cultivates a more comprehensive worldview with the goal of encouraging students to be open to new information and experiences, and to considering how this enriches their lives and benefits their communities. One way to keep these broad horizons open is by reducing stereotypes preventing students from entering fields of study that, for whatever reasons, have been perceived in the past as exclusive to certain groups of people.

One area of scientific study that has been historically perceived as male-dominated is neuroscience. Although a 2014 survey conducted and analyzed by the National Science Foundation found that the numbers of women and men entering graduate school with the intent to study neuroscience to be fairly equal, an article published in Women 2.0 found that the Association of Neuroscience Departments and Programs reported only one-fourth of tenure-track employees in the neurosciences were female. Neuroscience News reports that the number of women employed in the neuroscience fields is rising, but only one in five papers published in Nature Neuroscience (a leading scientific journal for neuroscience research) is associated with a female author. Additionally, women are more likely to leave their research positions due to the increased pressure upon them to choose between a career path and beginning a family. Clearly, there is a deficit in gender diversity in the professional neuroscience field.

However, there are women fighting against this deficit. Aileen Bailey (ΦBK, Beloit College, 1994) is one scientist actively fighting against gender barriers presented for women in the neurosciences. Currently Aldom-Plansoen Honors College Professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, Bailey mentors students interested in pursuing studies in neuroscience while also actively pursuing her own research. She has been awarded grants for from institutions such as the National Institute of Health (NIH) and Psi Chi for her work.

Initially a math major in college, Bailey did not pursue neuroscience until she was introduced to the study of psychology as part of a general education requirement. After she began to study the brain, Bailey claimed that she never looked back. “I was amazed by what the brain could do and what we didn’t understand,” Bailey said. She immediately registered for an additional major in psychology.

Bailey said that her initial interest in neuroscience was more generalized. However, she found the study of learning and memory in the context of neuroanatomy and neurochemistry to be fascinating. During graduate school, Bailey recalled, her mentor augmented this interest by instructing her to view these aspects through the added dimension of comparative cognition and learning hierarchies. Bailey continues this line of study currently, but she also has additional research interests. 

One area she currently investigates involves animal models of depression and pharmacological options for treatment. The possible benefits of discovering new, effective pharmacological treatments for depression are apparent in both the potential clinical and societal applications. Specifically, Bailey said of her research investigating a new chemical compound as a potential treatment for depression:

“We have been working in the lab with a compound that may have fast-acting antidepressant effects which may be of high value to those suffering from depression. There are a number of current antidepressant drugs on the market, but they often take three to eight weeks to become effective. In addition, they are only effective in roughly half of the individuals who take them. A drug such as the one that we are investigating is producing behavioral changes within twenty-four hours. As with any new therapeutic compound, we are looking to see if this drug is effective in multiple different models of depression, in multiple different behaviors that may be affected by mood state, and to what extent does the compound produce unwanted side effects.” 

While Bailey acknowledges that the work in her lab is modeled for depressive-like behavior in rodents, which differs from depression symptoms in humans, the data collected is valuable in that it offers knowledge of how and where the drug acts on and in the rodent brain. From this knowledge, scientists can use what is already known about the similarities and differences in human and rodent neuroanatomy, and apply what is learned from this research to develop the best possible pharmacological treatments for humans suffering from depression. For this research, Bailey and co-investigator Scott Thompson have recently been awarded more than $200,000 by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Their potentially groundbreaking work holds exciting possibilities for the future.

Bailey claims that her liberal arts education was critical in developing her interests and career path:

“My liberal arts institution, Beloit College, taught me how to think. I was a good student, but I believe that I mostly memorized information rather than thought about it or critiqued it. My liberal arts education gave me the opportunity to think about issues outside of my primary (original) area of study and to make connections between different disciplines. This is really invaluable to me as neuroscience is a field that is cross-disciplinary/interdisciplinary, and we need to be able to communicate with individuals outside of their primary area of training if we are to make progress as a society.” 

In addition, Bailey explained that if her liberal arts institution had not required an introductory psychology class, she might never have been introduced to the study of neuroscience. She emphasizes that building a successful career in science involves advanced communication skills—written and verbal—more than individuals outside of the field realize. Bailey claims that the ability to simply think about and process ideas is crucial to the study of any scientific field. Fortunately, she claimed, “I happen to love thinking and thinking about problems. The liberal arts allow you to take the time to think. Exercising one’s ability to critically analyze information will improve performance in any profession.”

A broad and open liberal arts education is an important factor in continuing to raise awareness about women in the sciences. The way we expand our thinking to become better scientists is also a way to increase gender diversity in the sciences overall. Bailey is reducing the gender gap in neurosciences both as a mentor and as an effective scientist herself. Her work will potentially revolutionize how we think about learning and pharmacological treatments for depression. 

Allison Barrett is a senior at St. Mary’s College of Maryland double majoring in Psychology and English. St. Mary’s College of Maryland is home to the Zeta of Maryland Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.